Last week when Governor Gavin Newsom declared California did not have enough money to finish the High-Speed Rail (HSR) not a few well informed Kings County residents said, “I told you so.”
One Kings County resident who could only speak off the record said, “Newsom stated the obvious and it’s what we have been saying all along in court. The voters voted for high-speed rail between SF and LA but they were never going to get it.”
“Let’s Get Real”
During Newsom’s first State of the State address on February 12 before a joint session of the California Legislature he dropped a bombshell about High-Speed Rail.
“Let’s be real, the project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. …Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were. However, we do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield.”
While media outlets and President Donald Trump immediately declared HSR dead, Newsom clarified the following day that HSR was still very much alive.
In Newsom’s reshaped plan, the Bakersfield to Merced line will be completed by 2027 and expanded by 52 miles.
The Central Valley segment was lengthened from 119 miles to 171 by extending it in the north from Madera to Merced and south into downtown Bakersfield.
But a condition of receiving the federal grant was that each section had to be economically viable, meaning ridership from Merced to
Bakersfield would have to financially sustain the operating cost.
The delayed completion date and lack of sustainability have put the entire project in jeopardy.
Newsom’s strategy to comply with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is to complete the Merced to Bakersfield segment and to finish the environmental review for the 520 miles of phase one by December 31, 2022.
The Central Valley segment is considered the spine of HSR and is a subsection of phase one from SF to LA.
After Newsom’s announcement Trump demanded the money back. In a tweet he said, “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project after having spent and wasted many billions of dollars. They owe the Federal Government three and a half billion dollars. We want that money back now. Whole project is a “green” disaster!”
Newsom shot back, “Fake news. We’re building high-speed rail, connecting the Central Valley and beyond. This is CA’s money, allocated by Congress for this project. We’re not giving it back. The train is leaving the station — better get on board! (Also, desperately searching for some wall $$??)”
Notice of Intent to Terminate Agreement
But seven days later, on February 19, the FRA issued a letter to the CHSRA Director with the subject line “Notice of Intent to Terminate Cooperative Agreement No. FR-HSR-0118-12-01-01.
A press release from the FRA said, “The U.S. Department of Transportation announced today that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) intends to cancel $929 million in Federal grant funds yet to be paid for the California High-Speed Rail project envisioned to connect the L.A. Basin to the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition, the Department announced it is actively exploring every legal option to seek the return from California of $2.5 billion in Federal funds FRA previously granted for this now-defunct project.”
A letter to the Chairperson of the CHSRA states, “FRA has determined that CHSRA has materially failed to comply with the terms of the Agreement and has failed to make reasonable progress on the project.”
A high-speed train connecting northern and southern California first appeared on the ballot as Proposition 1A in 2008 under the governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Proposition 1A was a general obligation bond measure requesting $9.95 billion dollars as seed money to build a train that went from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2.4 hours, cost less than $100 round trip, and be fully completed by 2028.
Phase 2 of the project was a leg from the Central Valley to Sacramento and another leg from San Bernardino to San Diego.
The system would comprise 800 miles in all.
As the years ticked by construction was delayed and costs spiraled out of control.
Private investors were part of the initial calculus but never materialized.
There were also not enough funds allotted for the many tunnels, suspensions, and other safety structures required for trains raging at more than 200 miles per hour through the developed, densely populated urban and coastal regions.
Once problems with the route, lack of transparency, and leadership, became clear the City of Atherton started filing law suits and Kings County soon followed.
The suits claim that the voters were not getting the affordable high-speed train they voted for in 2008.
Where the court system has not agreed, the Federal Government apparently has.
Kings County – Ground Zero for Mismanagement
A Hanford resident who has been involved in the legal challenges since 2011 gave the Valley Voice a tour of the many construction sites in Kings County.
He did not want his name used and will be referred to as Sam.
“If you want to build a High-Speed Rail would you want the route to be a straight or curvy?” asked Sam.
If the rail authority was interested in staying in budget, and actually wanted a finished product, he said the route would parallel Interstate 5.
The original route was in fact going to parallel Interstate 5 until Congressman Jim Costa traded his vote on Obamacare in exchange for having HSR run through Fresno.
Similar politics came into play when the rail was diverted again through Palmdale, a southern California town not close to any major highway.
“It’s a scam,” he said. “It’s all politics.”
Sam, who has driven the entire Central Valley segment, read all the documents, and often attends California High-Speed Rail Authority board meetings, said that HSR’s incompetence has been a major reason for the cost over runs.
“Since the beginning there has been no game plan,” he said.
In just the 29 miles of rail that traverses Kings County, HSR crisscrosses Highway 43 five times and goes over tributaries of the Kings River three times.
Sam said, “When the HSR engineer finally made it to Kings County he remarked ‘we can’t go across a river.’”
The engineer wasn’t saying a rail road cannot cross a river.
He was saying that HSR had no idea a river was there and major changes would need to be made.
Sam said that the CHSRA mapped out the train’s route in an office somewhere up north using Google Maps.
Not having eyes on the ground meant the Authority was unaware of major landmarks such as the Kings River tributaries, cemeteries, and indispensible industries such as Baker Commodities, the only rendering plant in the South Valley that dairies can access.
“Lakeside Cemetery has been there for 150 years. The families of the departed raised hell and HSR had to move the overpass slightly to the east,” he said.
The lack of planning is even more poignant when driving the actual route.
Empty fields where homes, dairies and businesses used to sit now languish waiting for a train that might never arrive.
Deteriorating earthen on-ramps, half built overpasses, random mounds of dirt, and pieces of rail bed intermittently dot the landscape.
Another Kings County resident who did not want to be named said, “Don’t start what you can’t finish, because it will be our nightmare. It’s a mess.”
Converse to what is happening on the ground, Sam said that when CHSRA gives a presentation about how construction is going they give the illusion of connectivity.
“The scam is that the truthfulness is lacking beyond comprehension,” he said. In terms of the connectivity, “Nothing connects to nothing. Fractured is the name of the game.”
In another example of how the Authority has wasted millions of dollars, Sam said that the CHSRA opened up bidding and awarded contracts to build Construction Package 1from Madera to Fresno before they had their plans ready.
Because of the delay to the contractor, the Authority had to hand over a $60 million fine.
“That means the contractor made $60 million dollars without turning over one shovel of dirt,” said Sam.
He said it happened again with Construction Package 2 and 3 that runs through a corner of Tulare County.
The Authority had to pay a $50 million dollar fine to that contractor for not having their plan ready and delaying the start of construction.
Having attended many board meetings, Sam said these mistakes happen because the CHSRA Board rubberstamps the chairman’s decisions — similar to what the former Tulare Hospital Board would do for Dr. Benny Benzeevi.
“Guess how many times the board has voted no?” questioned Sam. “One board member has voted no once.”
Diane Sharp, a former Hanford City Council Member said, “Former Gov. Brown betrayed the will of the voters by gross overspending and lack of accountability with this pet project.”
“How many lives have been turned upside down….people forced to sell their homes, uproot their families; ranches invaded, it’s disgusting,” she added.
“The best outcome for Kings County would be if the state would clean up its mess and leave our county the way they found it.”